Lithium Jesus by Charles Monroe-Kane came to my attention a few months ago, when a friend and fellow memoirian and student and avid reader sent me a text one afternoon, with a link to an interview Monroe-Kane just did, and an ad for a reading he was doing that evening. She was very excited - we are both interested in and keep an eye out for well-done memoir on mental health challenges, and the quote she sent me from the interview sounded very profound. It pointed to confusion about feelings of spirituality and struggling with sanity.
However, she got ahold of the book faster than I did, and was a bit disappointed. Mine took until this week to come in - he's a local author, and producer for Wisconsin Public Radio, so his book flew off the shelves. By then, I was a bit reticent, but wanted to go for it. Reading Undercurrents by Martha Manning and other similar books (here) or Alexandra Fuller's work (here), I and some of my friends and clients I work with find it incredibly satisfying when someone can render on the page the direct experience of being outside what is normally accepted as mentally sane behavior.
And the fact is, all of the memoirs I've read from people with severe mental health challenges have been women.
So here's my hit, having just finished Monroe-Kane's book. The first 1/4 of it is powerfully insightful, full of incredible descriptions of religious experience and psychosis coming so close together as to be indiscernible. In this passage, he is describing recognizing the voices in his head while in church for the first time, hearing others speaking in tongues:
The warm air soon began to hum with a cacophony of "thank you, Jesus" and mutterings in strange languages. I found it scary yet familiar. As the volume and the intensity of the audience's intonations rose, I started to hear them, sprinkled in among the tongues - the voices had arrived. It damn near froze me in fear. For the first time, these voices were not from my own head but from the mouths of those around me. The mutterings became shouts; a handful of people began running up and down the aisles. soon, it seemed, the chorus had circled me...
I walked to the altar. I don't know why. I think I felt at home in some odd way for the first time in my life...The first 1/3 includes a lot of descriptions of the oddness of being a teen preacher, taking his summer vacations for missionary work in places like recently revolutionary Philippines and Haiti. Some of the scenes are almost funny, they are so unexpected, so out of the range of most people's summer teen experiences. To whit:
I had been in the Philippines for about three weeks, avoiding any discussion of my discerned spirit gift of healing, when Mr. Peterson invited me one day to preach the Sunday sermon inside his Olongapo church. This was a step up from street preaching, and I came ready. I delivered what I thought was a powerful sermon from the book of Daniel (my favorite book of the Bible). Channeling the prophet, at one point I slapped an inner wall of the church and wrote there, in white chalk, "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin."
"This is your handwriting on the wall!" I hollered at the ever-growing crowd inside the church. I was venturing into some obscure biblical shit, but it didn't matter. I was feeling it. "Your days are numbered. Don't be Belshazzar!"
(Eventually, some congregants bring him a woman paralyzed from the waist down, since he is purported to be a faith healer, at age fifteen)
I assumed Mr. Peterson knew about my alleged gift, but he had never brought it up, which was fine with me. Frankly, I was afraid of it. Part of me didn't believe it. I was open to the idea, but was it my life's calling to be a faith healer? That's pretty heavy stuff and, to be honest, it's not exactly embraced as a "real job" by the world at large.But a large portion of the book covers his switch from the religious zealotry of church and into the zealotry of activism, when he graduates from a Mennonite school in mid-religious crisis. He gets swept up in recently liberated Eastern Europe, and in the end, spends five years in Prague, as well as Amsterdam and other cities. While he occasionally mentions ponderings about Jesus, and occasionally shows insight towards his mental health, it's mainly in the form of looking back directly from now at the end of a chapter, wishing he had done otherwise. In fact, the whole latter half of the book is filled with endless stories of drugs, sex, activism, more sex, more drugs, and only occasionally with the voice of the first half, in which he weaves his now self in with his then self. By the second half, I found it hard to keep reading about all of his machismo exploits, with only the occasional reprieve, quite divorced from the narrative:
That party was a mistake. Ditching my lithium and pumping myself with a cocktail of mind-bending illegal drugs could have killed me. I shouldn't have done it. But that's me talking now - the middle-aged me. There has been a lot of honest blood, sweat, and tears shed since that night on the couch. I look back at that young man, alone and scared, and it breaks my heart. I will deny no one their path - including me. But if I had to do it all over again I would not have stopped taking those meds. Any of them. I wasted a lot of years in my twenties, experiencing unnecessary suffering from my mental illness. And, frankly, I'm lucky - and grateful - that I even survived long enough to write these words.
But that was then and this is now. I'm sorry, young me.This sounds discordant. It would have been more powerful to have woven that voice throughout, cutting in his writer self throughout, as he did more of in the first half. Instead, a lot of the drug and sex stories, though they are honest about not being as romantic as one might hope, wind up feeling tedious.
And a strange thing happens in the middle of all those drugs - he meets his future wife. I breathed a sigh of relief at the hint he winds up marrying her, soon after she appears in the narrative. I realized I was starting to believe this was going to go on forever. Suddenly, all the detailed tales of drugs and sex go back to only highlight reels, focusing on the juxtaposition of the insights he has being with a wonderful woman against the life he's been barely living for a few years.
It's almost too late. Almost. Maybe Monroe-Kane wants us to feel just how strung out he got before he turned around. By the time he meets his future wife and they move back to the States, and he shares an incident where the voices come back and are violent, I'd almost forgotten he had experienced mania. It had just felt like a long tale of misadventures of the male kind in middle Europe in the 90's for about 100 pages.
It's not unusual for the center of a mental health memoir to be bogged down with the intense slog of "fighting-taking-drugs-self-medicating-making-everyone-else-suffer"ness. Maybe I feel less sympathetic to Monroe-Kane because it's just so masculine - so uber-guy, and I can't relate to that as much as, say, Martha Manning or even Suzi Favor-Hamilton. In the end, his story is bright, smart, charismatic - as I imagine he is in person. I am glad he made it out and is doing well. I rate the book well - four stars - because for the right reader, it will be wonderful. For myself and my students, however, it lacks in the sensitivity and intertwined insight needed to make for a strong felt experience we can feel supported throughout reading.